Mama's Babies: A Novel

Mama's Babies: A Novel

by Gary Crew

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"By the time I was nine years old I had begun to doubt that Mama Pratchett, the woman with whom I had lived for as long as I could remember, was in fact my mother..."

So begins Gary Crew's chilling fictionalized account of a "baby farmer" who, for profit, takes in unwanted children that later mysteriously disappear. Based on the facts revealed at the


"By the time I was nine years old I had begun to doubt that Mama Pratchett, the woman with whom I had lived for as long as I could remember, was in fact my mother..."

So begins Gary Crew's chilling fictionalized account of a "baby farmer" who, for profit, takes in unwanted children that later mysteriously disappear. Based on the facts revealed at the criminal trials of three women during the 1890s, Crew presents the story of young Sarah and her horrific realization.

Sarah is the eldest child in the Pratchett family and finds herself treated more as a maid than as a daughter. She looks after her younger brothers and sisters -- all under the age of five -- cooking their meals, washing their diapers, and generally keeping them out of the way of Mama Pratchett. Mama is a stern woman and doesn't like children who are "all full of beans." She guards her family closely from the prying eyes of strangers,
moving from town to town every few months. Her meager earnings as a seamstress do little to keep the children fed and clothed, and they often go to bed with rumbling tummies, their mattresses padded with old newspaper to keep out the drafts. Mama, however, always seems to have enough for her own little luxuries.

Sarah is made suspicious by the sudden appearance of a new baby following one of Mama's visits to the train station. Shortly afterwards, young Robbie, only a toddler himself, falls mysteriously ill and dies while Sarah and her siblings are away on a rare outing from the house. But Robbie is not the only child of Mama Pratchett's to disappear.

With the help of her friend Will, Sarah finds the courage to testify in court against Mama Pratchett on the charge of murder.

In a simple and telling introduction, Gary Crew describes the social background of the late-nineteenth century that led unwed mothers to give up their babies to unscrupulous strangers. Tragically, Crew's story is derived from real events: in the 1890s, Amelia Dyer in England, Minnie Dean in New Zealand, and Frances Knorr in Australia were sentenced to death for murder, following the testimony of teenage girls.

Editorial Reviews

Library Talk
This title ... will intrigue young readers who enjoy historical fiction as well as a good mystery. Recommended.
— Kathryn A. Childs
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
The combination of accessible style and absorbing story will make this a creepy winner for a wide range of readers.
— Deborah Stevenson
Relentless, compelling narrative ... impossible to put down.
— Kay Weisman
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books - Deborah Stevenson
The combination of accessible style and absorbing story will make this a creepy winner for a wide range of readers.
Library Talk - Kathryn A. Childs
This title, which was named a 1999 'Notable Book' by the Children's Book Council of Australia, will intrigue young readers who enjoy historical fiction as well as a good mystery. Recommended.
Booklist - Kay Weisman
A relentless, compelling narrative ... Young people who like horror of a realistic sort, however, will find this novel impossible to put down.
Kay Weisman
A relentless, compelling narrative...Young people who like horror of a realistic sort, however, will find this novel impossible to put down.
Deborah Stevenson
The combination of accessible style and absorbing story will make this a creepy winner for a wide range of readers.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
A bit of Annie, a lot of Cinderella, and a dash of The Boxcar Children make up this Australian historical novel. Sarah lives with Mama Pratchett, who keeps a houseful of children she clothes in rags and abuses. When Sarah learns that the train delivers new babies along with envelopes of money, and that when the house is too full, one of her toddler siblings is likely to grow quite ill, she begins to realize that Mama is motivated more by money than by the needs of orphan children. With plucky neighbor Will by her side, Sarah unravels the mysteries of her life with Mama and is pressed into action when she witnesses the murder of her little brother. With Sarah as a star witness in the protection of those she has always called her siblings, the trial of Mama for the murder of eight children culminates in a hanging sentence. An ending in which Sarah's real mother, a rich gentle lady who comes to claim her, feels tacked on to what is otherwise a dramatic and exciting book. The topic of mother-for-hire-turned-killer is serious, and a prologue explains the plight of unwed pregnant women in the 1890s and how they came to give up babies to anyone who promised to care for them. It also discusses the practice of baby farming for profit. In spite of such a deep subject, including the midnight burial of a toddler in the garden, the text is simple enough for fifth- and sixth-grade readers. Sarah is likeable, and the Cinderella aspect is appealing. This book is for reluctant middle school readers who will not be disturbed by the topic,
— Hillary Theyer
The stern picture on the cover, of a matronly woman in old-fashioned dress surrounded by four very sad-looking children, provides a glimpse into what the story is about. Set in England in the 1800s and based on true events, Mama's Babies tells of a woman who answers ads in papers for "nannies" to take care of babies young women have had out of wedlock. The Mama in the story would take on these babies, but as they get more difficult to care for, she kills them. The narrator of the story, Sarah, is one of these babies, but Mama has "allowed" Sarah to grow up so that she can take over the care of the other children. As the story unfolds, Sarah becomes more and more aware of what Mama is doing, and in the end, she is instrumental in getting Mama caught by the authorities. The story is disjointed and disconcerting but also morbidly fascinating to read, as it is one I had never heard before. Students might not select this on their own off the shelves; however, it is a short, disturbing read that some might find interesting. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: J—Recommended for junior high school students. 2002, Firefly, Annick Press, 160p., , Lacey, WA
Children's Literature
An advertisement is in the Sydney Tribune, March 5, 1894: "WANTED: Caring mother to adopt infant aged 15 months. Premium of ten pounds will be paid to suitable applicant. Contact "Mother," Post Office, Hurstville (Crew 8)." Mama Pratchett jumps at the offer of an adoption advertised in the newspapers. She loves to take care of small children, or at least that's what Gary Crew leads the reader to believe at the beginning of his book, Mama's Babies. Mama adopts kids as she finds them, and when they become too expensive to feed and take care of, they mysteriously begin to disappear. In this novel about child labor and abuse, Sarah, Mama Pratchett's oldest child, learns the truth about her so-called mother, and she faces the choice of dealing with this truth, or turning in to the authorities the only mother she has ever known. The story is suspenseful and leads the reader to wonder what twisted event will happen next. The abnormal happenings that go on will leave you thinking about this book long after you have put it down. 2002, Annick Press,
— Lyndsey Shelley <%ISBN%>1550377256
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-Sarah, the oldest of mysterious Mama's "adopted" children, who must thus care for the younger ones, lives in fear and squalor. Through Will Quaver, nephew of the stationmaster who mans the railway station from whence Mama picks up her occasional new baby, the 12-year-old begins to envision new possibilities of freedom and a glimmer of insight into the machinations of the woman who holds her hostage. When a new baby's arrival is followed by little "brother" Robbie's mysterious and terminal illness, Sarah begins to wonder. When Mama makes Sarah dose healthy little Horace with "special" medicine, Sarah worries about his alarming decline. All comes clear, of course, with Horrie's death, when Mama enlists Sarah in the garden burial and proceeds to lie to all regarding his whereabouts. Ever-observant Will arrives with the police, and Sarah gathers her courage and stands up to the evil woman, who is tried, convicted, and executed for murder. Based on true stories from the 1890s of several murdering "Mamas" who convinced hysterical, unwed, or otherwise needy women to pay them to "care" for their infants, this potentially powerful plot is marred by several weaknesses. Sarah tells the story in a dispassionate voice. The setting (Australia, 1894) is described only in the prologue, which many readers skip over, and the miraculous appearance of Sarah's birth mother in the last chapter (hinted at awkwardly in an earlier sequence) is unbelievably contrived. Given the violence and horror within, this book is surprisingly devoid of emotion.- Mary R. Hofmann, Rivera Middle School, Merced, CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Crew draws from actual 19th-century cases for this chilling but clumsily told tale of a murderous foster mother. Forced for as long as she can remember to care for a changing cast of small children while vile-tempered, secretive Mama Pratchett idles about or goes off on mysterious errands, only gradually does young Sarah come to realize that something is amiss. Not only do they abruptly pick up and move every few months, but time and again a new baby arrives just after another has suddenly disappeared (hospitalized, Mama Pratchett claims) or died. Until a final revelation clears things up, readers will wonder how Sarah could be telling her tale in such a formal, cultured voice, as she has never attended school; even then, how she can read, or know what she does know of the outside world, is never explained. Considering her cloistered circumstances, Sarah's reluctance to blow the whistle on Mama Pratchett, even after helping her bury a tiny corpse in the back garden, is more believable. But Crew further damages the tale's credibility by giving Sarah a ghostly vision of her real mother, an aristocrat who ultimately steps up in the flesh to reclaim her after Mama Pratchett is sent off to be hanged. The story may be every bit as grim as the cover illustration promises, but loose ends and a fairy-tale conclusion spoil its effectiveness. (Fiction. 11-13)

Product Details

Annick Press, Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: A Parcel Changes Hands

By the time I was nine years old I had begun to doubt that Mama Pratchett, the woman with whom I had lived for as long as I could remember, was in fact my mother. My doubts were based upon a growing understanding that no woman, not even Mama Pratchett, could possibly have given birth to five further children aged at that time between one year and five, especially since none were twins. Yet there we were, living under one roof, all six of us calling her "Mama."

With so many little ones about, it also seemed strange that there was no "Papa Pratchett," and question Mama as I might, I was unable to establish that there ever had been.

There were more sinister reasons for my doubts. While all of Mama's children, from babes in arms to toddlers, seemed simply to appear, there were others who disappeared just as suddenly, often before I had even learned their names.

It was sudden appearances and disappearances, more than any other circumstance, that led me, at last, to suspect Mama Pratchett. And to observe her ways.

"Sarah," Mama said to me one morning, "I want you to come down to the station with me. Leave the children. We won't be long."

That Mama was going "down to the station" was not at all unusual. In fact, railways in general seemed to be a part of her reason for being. No matter how often we shifted house (which was very often, and for no good reason that I could detect), our new abode was always beside the line, often a former railway worker's shack, now cheaply rented, or once, when we were very lucky, a little stone cottage that had been the station master's. But the strange thing about Mama's going this morning was that I had been invited, a circumstance which had never occurred before. For this reason alone I was eager to oblige.

"When?" I asked, giving a firm wring to the diapers I was washing.

"I'm due to meet the ten-fifteen from Peachester," she said. "I have a parcel to collect. I mustn't be late."

"A parcel?" I queried. "If it's only a bundle of sewing, couldn't it be left with the station master? I could collect it when I have finished here."

Mama made what little money came into our house by working at home as a seamstress. It was quite common for her customers to send her bundles of clothes by rail. But in this case it seemed that my assumption was wrong.

"No," she declared in a tone that would brook no argument, so I left the diapers to soak, pulled on my bonnet, and waited dutifully by the gate with a swarm of little ones hanging on my skirt and begging to come with me.

Mama appeared soon after, decked out in her best to meet the train. Perched upon her steely gray hair, which she parted in the center and pulled back into a bun, she wore a pillbox hat of black satin, tied beneath her many chins with a most audacious bow. Mama was a naturally imposing woman, big-boned and heavy-set, but when these physical attributes were accentuated by her particular choice of clothing, especially severely cut skirts and jackets (usually of battleship gray), her black stockings, walking shoes, and an enormous black leather handbag, she was truly a force to be reckoned with.

"Hurry up," she called as she reached the gate, and when I had disengaged myself from the children, I followed hastily, feeling a little like a dinghy dragged in the wake of a mighty vessel.

To be addressed gruffly was not new to me. Being the eldest of the children and the one who had been with Mama the longest, it had fallen to my lot to be treated more as a maid than as a daughter -- except that a servant would have been paid and a daughter would have been loved. I had never been fortunate enough to receive either love or money. In those days I believed that this lack of attention or affection was due to my being plain. It is true that I was pale and thin, my face pinched, my eyes gray, and my hair mousy and lank. Nor did I have a vivacious or winning personality. Still, since it was pointed out to me daily that I was lucky to have a roof over my head and food in my stomach, I did not complain.

So I hurried along behind Mama, thankful for the opportunity of breaking the monotony of my day and excited at the thought of seeing Mama's mysterious parcel, particularly as it was too important -- or possibly too precious -- to leave in the care of the station master.

At that time we were living on the outskirts of a village called Waterford. It was a miserable place. Once, they said, it had thrived on the extraction of peat from the swampy, wind-driven wasteland that surrounded it, but when the peat proved to be of too poor a quality to extract, the industry had failed and the population moved away. Now the village was almost deserted. One or two old folk remained, including the grocer, Mr. Dibbs, who sold little more than moldy potatoes. And there was the railway station, manned solely by the station master, Mr. Quaver. He was aptly named considering that, through either age or some terrible affliction, he spoke in a curious high-pitched tremolo, rendering most of what he said -- which was not much, since he was a solitary individual -- very difficult to understand.

Yet everything about Waterford was not as gloomy as the picture that I have painted. There was one salvation. This was the nephew of the wretched Mr. Quaver, a boy called Will who would often take the train from Ipswich, where he lived and went to school, to spend the weekend with his lonely uncle or, more correctly, to wander among the reedy pools and dense thickets of the swamp in search of adventure.

I first met Will Quaver when he passed our shack one day. Hearing my charges squealing in the front yard, I left my sweeping and went to the door to look. In the middle of the road was a gangly red-headed boy, perhaps a year or two older than myself, entertaining the children by performing cartwheels and handstands. I saw the boy as no more than a show-off and would have shooed him away with my broom if he had not caught sight of me and ceased his display immediately.

"Hello there," he said. "I'm Will Quaver. My Uncle Bertie's the station master." His manner was so pleasant that I could even forgive him his shock of hair, which appeared to have been struck by lightning. "Are all of these kids your brothers and sisters?"

As amiable as he seemed, the boy was still a stranger and, as such, a threat that Mama would never tolerate -- particularly a stranger who asked questions about her children. Once, when I had plucked up the courage to ask her why other children couldn't visit, she turned upon me and said, "What? Aren't there enough already?" Which was true, I suppose.

And so, when Will Quaver asked about the children, reasonable as his question was, I replied, "That is none of your business. Now be off with you," adding, as Mama would have done, "Children, come inside this minute." The pity was that I was not Mama, and neither the boy nor the children moved. "Do you hear me?" I bawled again, at which Will Quaver laughed.

"Well, well," he said, "it seems that you have no control over your little family. And you have none over me either, since I am on a public road."

At this I turned on my heel to fetch Mama, but by the time she had reached the door, the boy was gone, though the children still hung over the gate, calling after him as he skipped cheekily down the road.

That was my first meeting with Will, and in the three or four that followed, little advance was made, except that his persistence became more evident and my amusement at his antics and devil-may-care boldness increased. Finally, on a day when Mama had gone to the Saturday market in a neighboring town, I discovered Will in our front yard playing leapfrog with the children, and from that day on,

Meet the Author

Gary Crew has received international acclaim for his picture books and young adult fiction. He was awarded the American Children's Book of Distinction prize and was shortlisted for the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Fiction Award for Youth, among other honors. He lives in Australia, where he is a lecturer in Creative Writing, Children's Literature and Adult Literature at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

The Children's Book Council of Australia named Mama's Babies a Notable Book in 1999.

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